Jon Cardinelli

Unfinished business

Ruan Combrinck in SA Rugby magazine Ruan Combrinck in SA Rugby magazine

Ruan Combrinck hopes to earn a Springbok recall in 2018 and go to the 2019 World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Eyebrows were raised when Ruan Combrinck was omitted from the Springbok squad before the Test series against France in June. Calls for the wing’s reinstatement rose to a clamour in the buildup to the Rugby Championship.

The Boks needed a player of Combrinck’s attitude and skills operating in the back three. South Africa’s physical and tactical weaknesses at the back were mercilessly exposed by New Zealand and, to a lesser extent, Australia. Indeed, things may have panned out differently in these departments if coach Allister Coetzee had backed Combrinck and, ultimately, a more balanced backline combination.

Combrinck was playing for the Kintetsu Liners in Japan while his Bok teammates were battling their way to two wins, two draws and two losses in the Rugby Championship. Hopes of Combrinck rejoining the squad for the end- of-year tour to Europe were dashed when the wing sustained a serious shoulder injury in a club match. He returned to South Africa for surgery a few days later and was ruled out for the remainder of the season.

Out of sight should not be out of mind, though. Combrinck will play no part in the coming matches against Ireland, France, Italy and Wales. In 2018 and beyond, however, he could develop into one of the Boks’ most important players.

Combrinck has missed being part of the Bok environment. At the same time, he feels the short stint in Japan has allowed him to develop certain aspects of his game and to receive opportunities in other positions.

‘I played centre, wing and fullback while I was there,’ Combrinck tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘That allowed me to revisit a few things that I have perhaps forgotten over the past few years. It was great to play in other positions and to play a bigger role in the team. I found that I enjoyed the game even more when I was given more responsibility.

‘All in all, it’s been a special experience for me. I’m the kind of guy who is always working on his game. I love to be taken out of my comfort zone. That’s the only way you are going to grow as a player.’

To say that Combrinck has had an eventful 18 months would be an understatement. The wing represented the Lions in two Super Rugby finals in this period. He gave the Boks plenty of impetus when he came off the bench – on debut – in the second Test against Ireland in June 2016.

Combrinck’s time with the national side was interrupted, however, when he fractured his fibula in the Test against Argentina in Salta. He made a full recovery and rejoined the team for their tour of Europe. Four games later, in the final fixture of the 2016 season against Wales, he sustained a shoulder injury that sidelined him for much of the 2017 Super Rugby tournament.

Combrinck, who is described by his coaches and teammates as a mentally tough player, has taken it all in his stride. The latest setback may have put paid to chances of a Bok return this November. He remains intent on fighting his way back into contention in early 2018, though.

‘These things happen,’ he says. ‘Nobody wants to get injured, but it’s a reality of the game. When it happens, you have to focus on the next task. You also have to look at it as a new opportunity to get stronger and smarter before you return to the playing field. I will keep grinding to get back. The universe responds to the man who refuses to be denied!’

Combrinck played for South Africa A in a two-match series against the French  Barbarians in June. In the first match in Durban, one particular play summed up the wing’s game-breaking vision and execution.

Combrinck received the ball at first-receiver with the hosts positioned deep in opposition territory. Time was running out on the stadium clock and SA A were trailing. Combrinck spotted the space behind the defence and produced a chip-kick for his teammates to chase. Afterwards, SA A coach Johan Ackermann – who also worked with the player at the Lions – described the buildup to that try as a typical piece of Combrinck magic.

The Lions finished the conference stage of the Super Rugby tournament at the top of the overall standings. While they went into the playoffs as favourites to win the tournament, they were largely outplayed by the Sharks in the quarter-final at Ellis Park.

The Lions were trailing by one point in the 78th minute when they received a penalty on their own side of the halfway line. Combrinck stepped up to slot the long-range goal and send his team into the semi-finals.

‘It was awesome to be back in the Lions camp and fighting for that elusive Super Rugby trophy,’ he remembers. ‘That said, it was very tough to be denied in the final once again. I was a broken man for a long time after that. I don’t think I will ever be able to watch the tape of that game [against the Crusaders]. What was good to note, though, is that we never lost hope. Even after Kwagga Smith was shown a red card, I believed we could beat the Crusaders.’

Combrinck hoped to receive a call-up for the Rugby Championship squad in the wake of that tournament.

‘Any opportunity to play for the Springboks is a dream come true,’ he says. ‘I will never lose that desire to represent my country. When I didn’t get picked for the side this year, I took it on the chin. I reassessed my game. In the end, the trip to Japan gave me an opportunity to work on a few things. I have always worked hard on the fundamentals. I’m a big believer in analysis and knowing your opponent down to the most minute detail.

‘I felt that I was in a good space before I got injured. I was working my way back before that end-of-year tour to Europe. I was available for Springbok selection right up to the point where I hurt my shoulder.’

Coetzee’s reasons for excluding Combrinck from the Rugby Championship squad surprised a lot of people. A lack of form and game time certainly didn’t stop the Bok coach from rushing flyhalf Handré Pollard back into the mix after a serious injury.

Indeed, it was hard to make sense of Coetzee’s statements on the matter.

‘The big criteria for me this year has been form,’ Coetzee said. ‘Ruan has not played a lot since the Super Rugby tournament and that makes a big difference, especially at this crucial stage of our campaign. I’ve coached in Japan [at the Kobelco Steelers] and I know the step up from there to Test rugby is big. If a player’s not playing, how can I expect him to perform at Test level? His conditioning a year ago, or three months ago, compared to now is also different.’

Combrinck concedes that he hadn’t played a great deal of rugby at the time.

‘I played off the bench for three games, then started the other two. [Coetzee] also said the level of the game in Japan is much lower than that of Test rugby, and he is right. On the other hand, rugby has grown immensely in Japan and the game over here is not as easy as everyone may think. There are a lot of foreigners competing over here, and the influence of the New Zealanders, Australians and South Africans does make for some highly competitive games.’

The 27-year-old feels he has unfinished business with the Lions and the Boks. Beyond the 2018 season, he hopes to travel with the Boks to the 2019 World Cup.

‘That’s the ultimate challenge, isn’t it? To play in that tournament and win it. I know in my heart the Boks have what it takes to win the World Cup.

‘Other than that, the Lions will be looking to make it third time lucky in a Super Rugby final next year! I will keep working hard to improve and, hopefully, I will receive an opportunity to be part of both teams. For me, there are only exciting times ahead.’

– This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine


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